“If Thai fans want to see Thailand playing in the World Cup, I’ll tell you how … go home to your bed, sleep and dream.” – Coach ‘Heng’ Witthaya Laohakul.
The final whistle at Al-Maktoum Stadium on Monday night meant that Thailand finished fourth in the World Cup Qualifiers Asian Zone Round 2 Group G. A campaign which started with two wins and a draw turned into a nightmare. Separated by a margin of eight points from second-placed Vietnam and losing twice to third-placed Malaysia shines a light on Changsuek’s sharp decline since the end of Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang’s time in charge.
Multiple questions have been asked regarding the underlying reasons behind Thailand’s collapse in this World Cup Qualifying campaign. It’s time to look at what’s gone wrong and how it can be improved.
- No Big 3
Theerathon Bumathan’s decision not to join Thailand’s quest for an appearance in the third round of Asian Zone World Cup Qualifiers sent shock waves around the Thai squad. It could even be argued that it was the biggest reason for the team’s instability.
Both of his ‘replacements’ Ernesto Phumipha and Sasalak Haiprakhon came nowhere close to Theerathon. Ernesto was bullied throughout the Indonesia game by the pacey Asnawi Mangkualam. Then, he conceded a penalty with a costly foul on Malaysia’s Safawi Rasid, leading to the match’s only goal.
Sasalak, on the other hand, was thrown into the match against the Garudas with just over 20 minutes to go. In the following game against UAE, he was subbed off at halftime and wasn’t even named in the squad against the Harimau Malaya. Jeonbuk Hyundai’s newest Thai talent played just over an hour of football in a tournament in which many thought he would be one of the nation’s key men.
It was safe to say without Theerathon’s presence, the team’s left side of defense became an easy target for opponents to exploit. Indonesia’s youngsters, UAE’s naturalized players, and Malaysia’s winger all enjoyed success down that flank.
Teerasil Dangda’s absence reduced Thailand’s firepower. Generational talent Suphanat Mueanta is a ‘wonderkid’ who’s grabbing all the headlines and deservingly so because of his attributes. The three goals ‘Bank’ scored in Dubai were all world-class finishes compared to the other best prospects in Asia.
But it’s way too soon for Changsuek to be putting their World Cup hopes and dreams on his young shoulders. At just 18 years old, Suphanat still lacks the composure and experience Teerasil’s 100+ caps bring to the table. He’s also nowhere near the commanding figure that ‘Mui’ is.
The other options, Supachai Chaided and Adisak Kraisorn, both got a fair amount of game time in the three matches. Unsurprisingly, the pair were mediocre at best and couldn’t be the main men in front of goal when Thailand needed it most. Ultimately, Nattawut Suksum’s impressive 11-goal Thai League campaign earned him as many minutes as Teerasil in this tournament. Enough said there.
Finally, Chanathip’s knee injury while training for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo ruled out any clear game plan and combination plays Thailand was trying to construct in the offense. Throughout the matches, Supachok Sarachat’s underwhelming form mixed with Ekanit Panya’s lack of fitness blunted the attacking prowess in this Thai side.
The fact that all three of Thailand’s goals weren’t assisted by any midfielders is evidence of how much Thailand missed Messi-Jay’s vision, accurate passing, and creative ability.
- Akira Nishino
Akira Nishino’s time as Thailand’s head coach is coming to an end. He’s done it all, from selecting 40+ players, picking strange lineups, and failing to give in-form players game time to shutting down the media and hiding information. Ultimately, his methods ended in disaster.
It’s been almost two years since his reign began during the summer of 2019. Since then, Nishino has gone on to win less than 20% of his first-team games, a career-low for the 66-year-old manager. Lost every match after conceding the first goal and became the first national team head coach in 25 years not to pick up a victory in eight consecutive fixtures. Lastly, he’s yet to raise any silverware.
The results on the pitch were unacceptable, and his behaviour off the field didn’t help either. The damage started before taking off from Suvarnabhumi Airport.
The head coach convinced his staff and the FA to bring all 41 available players to Dubai. In a tournament that only required 23 per match, it was understandable that Nishino wanted some spare players in case a few tested positive for COVID-19. However, almost doubling the required amount without asking for more staff members, coaches, doctors, and translators to complement the increase showed early warning signs regarding his methods.
Nishino didn’t really help the media either as he strictly controlled the release of information and kept journalists and the social media team in the dark. The modern-day ‘Inside Training’ videos of top European nations is an upcoming trend, but Nishino made sure to shut down any thoughts of having that type of coverage for Thailand due to fears of ‘scouting.’
His unusual approach off the pitch wouldn’t be questioned if he had delivered on it. But he didn’t. He failed.
Things on the pitch went wrong from the first game against Indonesia when Nishino opted for an unfit Ekanit Panya, who had a goalless Thai League campaign ahead of every pundit’s first choice winger Supachok Sarachat.
The former Japanese first-team head coach then decided to bench Jeonbuk’s newest left-back, Sasalak Haiprakhon, for Samut Prakan’s Ernesto Phumipha.
Additionally, he picked Pathompon Charoenrattanapirom ahead of Jaorensak Wonggorn, who came off a 15 assist season. This confused almost every Thai football fan’s mind.
Entering a ‘must win’ game against the UAE, Nishino still preferred Ekanit on the wing, sat Jaorensak on the bench, and didn’t bother to put Thai League’s top Thai goalscorer’s name in the 23 for the match.
He still preferred Suphan Thongsong and Tom Bihr as his favorite partnership despite the pairing’s questionable defending in the previous match, leaving Pansa Hemviboon puzzled as to why he wasn’t given a chance.
Thanawat Suengchitthawon’s name was also not in the 23. The head coach again made sure nobody knew his whereabouts until the information was later leaked that the Leicester City attacking midfielder had sustained a minor ankle injury in training. That closed off any hope Thailand had in advancing to the third Asian Qualifiers round.
Then came the final match, a chance for Nishino to salvage something from this tournament by putting on a good performance against arch-rivals Malaysia. Instead, it was the worst performance out of all three games.
His favorite left-back Ernesto was viewed so highly he started again, and Sasalak wasn’t anywhere near the 23 players in the squad. Substitutions were all over the place in the second half as Thitiphan Puangchan was forced to play center back, while Sumanya Purisai and Jakkaphan Kaewprom were stacked in the same position, and Adisak got in Suphanat’s way up top. It added up to one of the worst performances Thai football fans have witnessed in years.
- Thai FA
The Thai Football Association also needs to take a serious look at themselves in the mirror. Ever since Pol Gen Somyot Poompanmoung’s first press conference four years ago when he said, “Thailand needs an experienced head coach who’s been to the World Cup, we must aim higher than ASEAN and challenge in Asia,” his vision hasn’t taken Changsuek forward. Unfortunately, it’s going in the wrong direction.
The emphasis on ‘World Cup’ level coaches has led to the hiring of Milovan Rajevac and Akira Nishino. Two managers both more than capable of leading top nations to compete against the world’s finest. But this is Thailand.
Understanding the nature of Thai players, coaches and fans should be the number one priority. The FIFA rankings of Ghana (Rajevac’s former team) and Japan (Nishino’s former team) are both inside the top 50 in the world; Thailand’s current ranking isn’t even in the top 100. Therefore, from a development standpoint, that in itself is already an adjustment to make.
Moving on to the style of play – the two coaches hired have a different style of play. This point made many Thai media members and fans question the Thai FA’s lack of consistency. Why hire a defensive-minded Rajevac then switch to Nishino’s balanced way? How come Thailand turned away from the Ekkono coaches? Does this mean the head coach position is not for Thais? So many questions, but still no clear answer.
To make matters worse, the FA president claimed he wasn’t ‘satisfied’ with just beating ASEAN teams, felt ’embarrassed’ losing to top Asian sides, and would ‘happily quit’ if Thailand didn’t improve. Since 2017 Changsuek has failed to beat Vietnam or Malaysia, failed against Asia’s top nations, and failed to win any major trophy.
The best long-term solution for Thailand starts with allocating the necessary means to support youth football. Still to this day, Thailand lacks a national-level football academy. Yes, each club has their own setup and way of doing things. However, when it comes to the entire nation, there is no official training center.
The most straightforward example to look at is Thailand’s biggest rival, Vietnam. The Golden Star’s private sector invested millions into their PVF Academy to make it in the same echelon as the European leagues. Age groups from U-16 to U-23 level for Vietnam develop their skillsets there. The end product is displayed by winning the 2019 SEA GAMES, finishing runners-up in the AFC U-23 Championship, and coming fourth in the 2018 Asian Games.
It’s time Thais look at Vietnam not out of hate but for innovation and motivation. Tens and hundreds of millions are spent each year to help the Thai League become recognized as the top Asian leagues. We see club owners spend heavily on foreign players to do the job. This begs the question, are they helping or hurting Thai football?
If more money from sponsorship, clubs, and the FA is shared towards a proper Youth League and building the right system from its roots instead of letting it all rain on the top of the Thai League, sustainable growth will follow. The Thai FA already owns land near the outskirts of Bangkok. Indeed this has to be the first step in creating the nation’s football center.
Ekkono must also meet their role in scouting, improving, and training Thailand’s rising prospects to help Changsuek fulfill the ‘Thailand Way’ of football, something that has been ignored over the past few years. The 15-year age gap between generational strikers like Teerasil and Suphanat will slowly be reduced. There can be consistent talents coming through the ranks every year, giving the first team a plethora of options.
The ultimate goal for Thai football is to reach the World Cup. But before going to university, one must first study in primary school and high school. With a strong youth foundation put in place, Thailand can consistently win at regional levels and challenge for continental success. Thai players can become top talents in the region and play in the top leagues. Most importantly, Thai fans can stop dreaming about a World Cup and see it happen in reality.